Mick’s spade

A couple of weeks ago there was an archaeological dig in our village and I went along to watch, learn and volunteer. Phil Harding, a member of the TV series Time Team was the lead archaeologist and it was a real privilege to watch him work, ask him questions, and listen to his stories and advice and instruction he gave.

Although the archaeology of the little ruined church where the dig took place was the most important and fascinating aspect of the week, it was also very interesting to hear Phil talk about Time Team. It was first broadcast in 1993 and I watched all of the following twenty series, it was one of my favourite programmes. One the most popular aspects of the programme was the relationship between the different experts in the programme, the diggers, the surveyors, the landscape investigators, the geophysicists, the presenter… It was what made the programme so popular, the way they would discus,, argue, disagree, all in the most friendly way, but all in order to find the truth about what they were uncovering. it was a TV programme, yes, but it seemed very much like what might happen on any other dig. So when Phil stopped digging in our little church, paused to chat for a moment and told us about what actually happened in the programme, it was great to discover that the people we viewers felt we knew so well, actually were very much as they seemed on camera.

As well as the various stories he told, Phil very proudly showed us his spade. It was a long-handled tool with a leaf-shaped blade, and he told us it had belonged to the lead archaeologist for most of the programmes, Professor Mick Aston, who sadly died two years ago. When Mick died very unexpectedly, his widow gave the spade to Time Team, and it was decided that Phil should have it. He was obviously very touched by this, and felt honoured, and would treasure and use it as he was now. On the back of the handle Mick had carved his mark, Mix (Mick’s)

dig uphill 9.9 (8)Mick’s spade and a mattock

The report in our local paper:


Done digging Uphill

There has been great excitement in our little village this week; Time Team’s archaeologist Phil Harding and his hat have been here, excavating the old ruined church. Wessex Archaeology which coordinated the dig, seems to be all about involving communities in finding out their past. I’m sure they would have worked much more quickly and efficiently if they hadn’t kindly allowed us volunteers to have a go at some of the digging, and also stopped work to answer questions over and over again.

So what did I learn from my three days up on the hill? It can be jolly cold being an archaeologist; you have to be fit to tramp up or over to the dig site and then to spend hours squatting in a trench, leaning at uncomfortable angles so you don’t step on anything important; that what’s exciting is not finding things but seeing things – to have the different floor levels explained and pointed out so you can see them; that even experts don’t necessarily agree – ‘It’s not a human bone’, ‘yes it is’, no it’s not because it’s too thick the wrong shape and has been cut by a butcher…’, ‘oh, ok…’

I was amazed to find that things I learned also applied to me writing. If you imagine the plot of a novel is like a test pit. When you begin the novel or the test pit, everything is already there, the plot, setting, action, characters of the novel are contained within the cover but you can’t see them until you go through the whole thing. Everything is there in the test pit, but you can’t see what is there until you work your way through and reveal it. A good archaeologist works carefully and neatly, clearing as he goes, keeping everything tidy and clearly visible, before peeling off another layer and revealing more of the pit’s secrets… just as a writer should do, constructing the novel carefully so it can be ‘read’ like an archaeologist ‘reads’ his pit. At the end everything should be clear and revealed, and just like a dig might have some open questions for the digger to ponder on, so a novel can have possibilities for the reader to mull over.

My two passions, writing and finding out about the past!

Exciting finds with the Time Team diggers!

I have to confess there was only one actual member of Time Team involved in the archaeological dig in the ruined church in our little village of Uphill. However, the majority of the visitors and volunteers who came along were huge fans of the much missed programme, and had mostly come along to see Phil Harding and his legendary hat… or maybe it was Phil Harding’s hat and the legendary Phil Harding!

I have been volunteering there for the last three days, and have been so excited that I actually have been allowed to wield a trowel and do some excavating! The old church was built just after the Norman Conquest, and having weathered many storms eventually was replaced by a new church in the village; the old church is up a very steep hill and it a place of worship on the flat was more convenient for the villagers. The old church lost its roof, whether through a fire caused by a lightning strike, or storm damage, no-one really knows. The nave is now without a roof at all which was taken down some time in the middle 1800’s.

Uphill Feb 16th 2014 (28)

The actual dig took place within this roofless nave, and three test pits were opened up; during the first couple of days one by a blocked doorway was extensively excavated down to the bedrock, and showed different layers of the old church floor, a lot of broken roof slates, and a mysterious cut away and lots of sand. Since we are so close to the beach the sand is understandable, we get enough blown into our house and we have a roof on. However, because of a burnt area, there was a suggestion that maybe the church bell had been cast actually inside the church in one of its periods of being rebuilt, and it was a bell pit. There also seemed another cut away area which might have been a grave.

The second marked out area by the entrance was not dug, but the third pit was dug, and this was the one I helped work in… I was so excited! This was probably the most interesting for an amateur like me because it taught me so much. The top layer of sandy soil and bits of stone, old slate, burned slate, mortar and plaster gave way to just a heap of rubble. It seems that at one point in the past, possibly when the church was being reroofed, or the final roof being taken down, everything had been dug out – including burials within the church which were then reburied in the ‘new’ church in the village. As I was digging away in my little corner, taking out all the old stones and rubble, it seemed to me there was a bit of a void beneath where I was working,as sand kept trickling through between the stones and disappearing. I did point this out to the person supervising us, but it was though just to be because it was a heap of old stuff.P1020939The  tidied up pit yesterday

Today however, great excitement, the shape of a grave appeared, old bits of decayed wood, the heads of coffin nails, and a small scrap of a brass plate were found…and then some actual bones.

It seems as if when the old burials were moved, odd bits and pieces and bone got left behind. These weren’t excavated; the point of the dig was to find out more about the history of the church, not to disinter any people that we found. The dig finished today, there will be a talk and display tomorrow… but what an interesting time I’ve had, and how much I have learned!

dig uphill 11 (3)The tidied up pit having one last inspection today


Time Team in Uphill

One of the star’s of the archaeology programme, Time Team, is in  our little village of Uphill working on the archaeology of the ruined church up on the hill. The village isn’t called Uphill because it is Up-hill, it is named after a local Saxon chief who had a wharf or pill on a creek of the River Axe which flows into the sea here.

Phil Harding is a very experienced archaeologist and is famous for his hat, and his love of beer and flints; beer to drink, and flints as used for so many different tools by the people who lived on our islands tens of thousands of years ago. There is no natural flint in Uphill, but someone came along to the dig today with something her father had picked up while walking the dog  twenty years ago. She handed it to Phil who had no doubt that it was a hand axe and gave us a little explanation of how it had been made and how it was used. he couldn’t say for certain but he felt although it might have been Neolithic, so about four to six thousand years old, he actually thought it was probably Mesolithic, and could be anything up to ten thousand years old. I find that period of history so interesting, and would have loved to hold the little hand axe, but it was put away and Phil returned to digging his test pit.

These sort of projects are very much about involving the community in which they take place; dozens of children from the local school were brought up and shown around and they all seemed very interested… I wonder how many future archaeologists were among them? Then to my great excitement, i was given a trowel and spent a couple of hours digging in another test pit! We didn’t find anything very exciting, plenty of stones with plaster on, and bits of mortar and plaster, some slate roof tiles, possible bits of brick and possible bits of floor tile, but it was just so interesting.

I shall go up again tomorrow and hope I’ll be able to have another go… in the meantime, as Phil Harding says, digging is thirsty work, so we may have to go to the pub and find some beer tonight!

P1020939The test pit I helped dig – not my hand, I was digging at the front of the pit in the left hand quarter

Dig Uphill

I’ve written several times about the iconic TV programme, Time Team – and I do mean iconic. It was an archaeology programme which ran for twenty years, and had a wonderful and varied team of archaeologists, surveyors, artists, craftsmen and women who specialised in recreating old artefacts in the way thy were originally produced, and a presenter who was enthusiastic in the way he pulled the programme together. The premise was that the team had three days to explore a site and try and answer a question such as ‘was there a hill-fort here?’ ‘where did this Roman road go?’ where was the site of a certain famous battle?’ It was informative, exciting, inspiring, never patronising, never ‘talking down’ to the viewer and must have inspired countless thousands young people to go on to study archaeology, and countless hundreds of thousands of other ordinary people in an interest and passion for digging up the past.

Our little village on a small river estuary has a significant but mostly forgotten past, a cave containing the bones of hyenas, tigers, wolves and pre-ice-age creatures, a pre-Roman settlement, a Roman wharf, a ship building yard for King Alfred’s fleet, traders, smugglers, fishermen… and plenty of legends – did Jesus really arrive here with Joseph of Arimathea? Was St Patrick born nearby and snatched from the hill above the village by Irish pirates?

Great excitement because one of the star of Time team is here in our little village, digging up the past in a Hidden Somerset excavation of the ruined church upon the hill, old St Nicholas’s church.

Uphill Feb 16th 2014 (28)The church, which lost its roof in the nineteenth century, is supposed to be of Saxon origin… will the dig discover the truth of this?


dig uphill 9.9 (6)Maybe Time Team star Phil Harding will help discover the truth. he’s digging a test pit helped by a local volunteer.

The dig, unlike the TV programme, is going on all week and there will be a display of all that is uncovered on Saturday. Despite my love of and interesting archaeology, this is the first time I’ve ever witnessed an excavation. I was fascinate, and stood all day watching them work, despite it being so very cold, really hoping they would ask me to help! All I did was carry Phil’s mattock!

I shall be up there tomorrow, whatever the weather, but this is the result of Phil’s work today:

dig uphill 9.9 (1)

Watching Time Team

Lovely sunshine meant loads of washing, and loads of washing means loads of ironing. I set up the ironing board in the sitting room and went through the channels on the TV to find something to watch. I was pleased to find that my all-time favourite programme was being repeated, Time Team.

Time team is a programme about archaeology, using a team of renowned and revered archaeologists and other experts. it is presented by Tony Robinson, now Sir Tony, who is well-known as an actor, and the premise is that the team have three days to do a ‘dig’, usually to find a particular thing, or the truth about a particular place, or at the behest of a viewer, or history club or society, who believe they have something of interest in their local. It may seem on paper to be an artificial concept ‘only three days to find out whether…’ but if it was just an open-ended challenge it would go on forever! However, because of the quality of those involved, their knowledge, their personalities, the seriousness with which they took on the challenge – and yet with friendly humour among the team, it was not only a huge, huge success, but must have inspired thousands upon thousands of people young and old to become interested in history, and what lies beneath our feet.

There were twenty series plus ‘specials’, for example week-end events, and although there were many different people involved, the main team consisted of a lead archaeologist, usually Professor Mick Aston, a couple of diggers and archaeologists including the amazing Phil Harding and his hat, a landscape investigator, a geophysicist, a surveyor and an illustrator. There were other regular diggers, who appeared week after week, series after series.

The programme was eventually cancelled which was a great shame; it had begun to change, in my opinion, as although the core team remained strong and never, ever, ever, ever  dumbed down, somehow the emphasis seemed to shift as if trying to appeal to an imaginary audience  who wouldn’t know the first thing about archaeology. In fact, I believe the viewers were enlightened and educated, enthralled and intrigued – even young children loved the show, as I know from my own family!

Watching it again as I busily ironed, I thought again how sad it was that it no longer had new series, and how grateful I was to all concerned for the twenty years of episodes I have enjoyed.


Phil Harding’s thoughts on archaeology…


I am a great admirer of Phil Harding, one of the archaeologists on my all-time favourite TV programmes, sadly no longer being made. As you will find from watching this video, his particular interest is the palaeolithic era, the stone-age, which is my area of interest too, in my own amateur way. As he says on the vid, his passion is not the ‘nobs’ but the ordinary people.

I hope you also enjoy his accent!